From May to July, Ragged Robin adds a glow of pink to the vegetation of damp places in its native Europe. This species is a member of the Carnation family (Caryophyllaceae) and therefore related to the campions and catchflies. It is also known as Cuckoo Flower in some areas, a name it shares with several other plants that flower at the about the same time as the Cuckoo arrives in Europe to breed. This is reflected in the second part of the Latin name Lychis flos-cuculi. Lychnis is from the Greek for lamp and refers to the leaves of some species from this genus having been used as wicks for lamps.
A low rosette of foliage produces stems 20-75cm tall which branch before ending with a loose raceme of pink flowers of 3-4 cm diameter. The flowers look smaller because the each of the five petals is divided into four narrow lobes which are often crinkled. Thus the flower has an untidy, raggedy appearance which gives rise to its common name.
Behind the petals, there is a five-toothed calex tube, with ten stamens and one style. The tube is deep, allowing only long-tongued butterflies and bees to access the nectar at the base, and to act as pollinators.
By August, the flowers give way to fruits consisting of a small capsule with a top opening surrounded by five teeth. Once ripe, the teeth open and the small seeds are shaken out of the capsule by the wind or by passing animals. In very wet conditions, the seeds may be carried far from the parent plant by water.
During the winter, only the basal leaves remain visible above ground. These paired leaves are spoon-shaped and stalked. On the stems (both flowering and non-flowering stems) the middle and upper leaves are more linear and lanceolate, often ending in a point. All the leaves are untoothed. The stems are covered with barbed hairs which downwards. These make the plant rough to touch, and also make it difficult for small insects to climb up to feed on the blooms. Despite this, Ragged Robin is the food-plant for the caterpillars of moths such as the Lychnis (Hadena bicruris) and the Campion (Hadena rivularis)
Ragged-Robin is a perennial plant of damp places - meadows, marshes, ditches and damp woodland - on moderately acid to calcareous soils. The soil can be light (sandy) to heavy (clay), so long as it is fairly moist.
It is a hardy plant, found as far north as Iceland, and east into western Russia. It was introduced to north America in the late 1800s, either through intentional planting or accidentally in ship’s ballast. It has spread widely in recent years, and has become an invasive plant in the north-east.
It is in decline in the UK, and across much of its native range, due land drainage and agricultural improvement of wet grasslands. However, it is now popular as a cultivated plant, and people are choosing to grow it in their wildlife gardens where it looks extremely attractive in a marshy corner or at the edge of a pond. It will grow happily in sun or partial shade.
There are no known edible or medical uses of this plant. The root contains saponins, some forms of which are poisonous. However some saponins can be used to make soap, and infusing the crushed roots in hot water will make a mild, non-foaming, usable soap for washing clothes or hair.
Ragged robin is sometimes called thunder flower, and is also known as crow flower, meadow spink, bachelor's buttons, thunder flower, Polly Baker, and Shaggy Jacks.
In centuries past, girls carried a sprig of ragged robin, naming each flower for a local boy. The flower that opened first would have the name of the boy that she would marry.
In another tradition, men would carry ragged robin in their pockets, whether the plant thrived or not supposedly indicated how successful they would be in love.